About six months ago, I was in a Facebook discussion with a person who was in Alcoholics Anonymous, also known as “12-step recovery.” (I am also in 12-step) Without getting into what lead up to it, at the end of the conversation, the person, commented, “Well you must not be a real alcoholic.” I was offended!
“What do you mean I am not a real alcoholic?” How dare you! Instead of getting all worked up, my response should have been, “Thank you. I hope you’re right.”
As I prepare to hit eleven years of continuous long-term alcohol and drug use recovery on April 8, 2018, I am reflecting on that exchange.
I have recovered over those eleven years, not only in a sobriety sense but from childhood trauma, body shame and lack of self-worth. All forming the core of my desire to drink and use drugs dating back long before I took that first drink or snorted that first line.
There is no genetic predisposition to addiction in my family that I am aware of. While there is no real way to know, as far as I can tell, my desire to drink and use drugs revolved primarily around environmental and psychological triggers dating back to childhood. It has taken me many years of therapy to flesh out these issues.
At the beginning of those 11 years, there was a lot of 12-step. I attended about one-hundred meetings in my first ninety days. Each meeting with the exception of the first, I dutifully raised my hand and stated as I had seen everyone else in the room:
“My name is Brian; I am an alcoholic”
I believed those words. I believed I would eventually die or lose all things dear to me if I took another drink. Regardless of the ultimate truth, I needed to be that. I needed to identify with all the other “alcoholics” in the room.
Two years earlier, I had contemplated suicide. A legal career gone. Jail. Nightly drinking and drug use. Failed marriages. Two trips to a psychiatric hospital. Knowing that a choice could be made, but unable to make that choice. The use of alcohol to deaden feelings of shame and trauma in my life. Overpowering cocaine-induced brain signals filling a void with an artificial feeling of self-love.
As my alcohol and cocaine use progressed, the feeling of loving myself no longer came from the drink or the line. It only amplified the self-hatred and depression I started with. I still could not stop. A different type of alcohol. A different source for my cocaine. Mix in some black market Xanax. Those were the answers.
On April 8th 2007, I needed “alcoholic” to mean only one thing. If I took another drink or did a line of cocaine it would mean profound loss on multiple levels including possibly my life whether those things come sooner or later.
That label was part and parcel with my daily struggle to stay sober but I also had to repair that child and sense of self. It is that repair which would ultimately have a dramatic effect on my desire to drink and use substances. In addition to 12-step, that repair would come through a lot of psychiatric therapy that I still get today.
I was a broken person who had not yet dealt with the trauma of the past. The bullied little boy. The shy little boy with an overwhelming need for acceptance. The little boy who felt like he would never be able to love himself or be loved by anyone else.
That little boy is no longer wounded, or at least getting closer every day to understanding that he is enough. The fifty-seven-year-old Brian goes right along with him in his recovery. Whether I am still an “alcoholic” at this point in my journey has no healing value either in self-awareness or fear of relapse. It is defining myself by a person who no longer exists. A hurt and broken person. Should it not be societally acceptable to at some point if, I feel I have reached a point of “balance” in my psychological repair to have that wounded boy stop defining my life with the same word?
I simply choose not to drink anymore. Call it a lifestyle. Call it continuing long term recovery. I do not see an “alcoholic” when I look in the mirror.
My conclusions are not meant to belittle or judge any other view of what it means to be an “alcoholic.” I hope you will not personalize it that way. It is simply a term that no longer fits who I see in the mirror or who I want to be moving forward in my life. I don’t think the thirteen-year-old Brian would want me to continue to define myself by his pain.
In my next 12 step meeting, when my hand goes up, maybe it will be,
“My name is Brian, I don’t drink.”
Brian Cuban (@bcuban) is The Addicted Lawyer. A graduate of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, he somehow made it through as an alcoholic then added cocaine to his résumé as a practicing attorney. He went into recovery on April 8, 2007. He left the practice of law and now writes and speaks on recovery topics, not only for the legal profession, but on recovery in general. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.